Time Out on UKFC demise

From Time Out yesterday:

The UK Film Council is dead. Let’s give the British Film Institute a chance

The closure of the public body which put money into films like ‘Hunger’ and ‘In the Loop’ is a sad thing. But might this be an exciting new time for British cinema, asks Dave Calhoun?

Ten years ago, the then Culture Secretary Chris Smith gave birth to the UK Film Council, a body designed to boost homegrown film-making by investing Lottery and public money in British talent. Some of the strongest films in which the UKFC invested were ‘Vera Drake’, ‘Hunger’, ‘In the Loop’ and ‘Man on Wire’, and with less fanfare the UKFC has done good work to help the release of smaller films by funding extra posters and prints, as well as spearheading the switch to digital projection. Then, last week, Tory Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt pulled the plug on the show. The move came without ‘any real discussion’, according to UKFC chief John Woodward, and even its critics agreed it wasn’t much of a tenth birthday gift. As I write, Facebook, Twitter, an online petition and the letters page of The Guardian are alive with calls to save the UKFC.

Without doubt, the end of the UKFC is a blow, and directors like Mike Leigh and Mike Figgis have understandably spoken out against the move, not least because it creates huge uncertainty at a tough time. But should we run along uncritically with all this surprise and shock? The end of the UKFC is being portrayed as Tory axe-wielding, but the truth is, firstly, that the trouble started under Labour and, secondly, that a new approach to how and where we spend public money on film could be a good thing for British cinema.

To understand last week’s move, you need to know that last August Labour culture minister Sion Simon proposed a merger of the UKFC with the British Film Institute, the country’s other big film body, which manages the National Film Archive, runs BFI Southbank and organises the London Film Festival. The plan was to cut costs and prevent overlap. It’s now clear that the Tory solution is to run away with Labour’s plans by getting rid of one body entirely – and the UKFC was always more vulnerable. The UKFC was a New Labour quango and the sort of bureaucracy for which the Tories have been sharpening their knives for ages. Moreover, the BFI is a charity, protected by royal charter – it can’t be dismantled. Even more importantly, the BFI is a cultural body; too many of the UKFC’s activities existed to help the industry turn a greater profit – is that really the job of money designated to promote culture? Neither did it help the UKFC’s cause that so many of its execs were on high salaries compared to those doing similar jobs at the BFI. It looked bad.

Behind closed doors, the BFI and its canny chairman Greg Dyke will be thrilled. Not only have Dyke and his colleagues fended off talk of a merger but they find themselves back in the pre-2000 position of being funded by government rather than in the pay of the UKFC, an organisation too often embarrassed to treat film as culture. In the end, that was Chris Smith’s biggest mistake: to subjugate the BFI, a cultural body, to the UKFC, a trade one. That mistake has been corrected.

Yet this is no time for dancing on tables. Whatever its faults, the UKFC performed a crucial role in developing and producing British films. There has been wild talk about the UKFC only producing box-office disasters like ‘Sex Lives of the Potato Men’ or big films in no need of support. Neither is true. Filmmakers like Andrea Arnold and Steve McQueen needed government help and received it from the UKFC. It’s these filmmakers we should now be most concerned about.

However, let’s not call time on British independent film just yet. The Tories’ announcement last week suggested that the money given to film by the UKFC – £15m a year – is safe (even if the exact figure is not clear). The big question is: who will dish it out? Will the BFI be asked to manage a production fund, as it did pre-2000, producing films like ‘Under the Skin’, ‘Gallivant’ and ‘Love is the Devil’ ? Will the Arts Council assume a role? Or will a new body be established, with key roles for BBC Films and Film Four?

I think the most exciting – and daring – result would be for the BFI to take on the most essential of the UKFC’s work – meaning that a cultural body would be putting money into film as culture. But at the same time we must redefine what needs support. If the demise of the UKFC means that films on the level of ‘The Constant Gardener’, ‘Bend It Like Beckham’, ‘Gosford Park’ and ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’ – all of which received UKFC help – have to go without, so be it. With its archive and twin focus on heritage and education, the BFI celebrates film as an art form, a principle that should apply to future funding. Our culture needs raw visions, new talent, difficult stories. We need to take risks. We need to be prepared to put money into films that might not make a single penny but which nurture and develop both talent and audiences and which progress British cinema rather than just repeating past successes and chasing foreign awards. Let’s ask ourselves why we give public money to film. Is it to provide support to an art form? Or is it to provide extra capital to an industry? I’d argue that it’s the former – and no organisation is better placed to honour that approach than the BFI.

Author: Dave Calhoun

2 thoughts on “Time Out on UKFC demise

  1. I initially hesitated to comment on Dave Calhoun's view –as again it reinstates the opposition between BFI versus UKFC and art/culture film versus commercial/industry/trade of cinema. And in this it takes the side of BFI and art/culture. But this is flawed and precisely the kind of binary opposition which doesn’t help to resolve matters in reality. I agree that the kind of films—art, cultural, risky, different— deserve more public funding support. However, a prior to and beyond this, for these and any other kind of films to be made in the first place, there needs to be a the hardware of a ‘film industry’ at work—infrastructure (including studios), skilled technicians, investors/bankers (yes the City Boys, why not) specialised accountants/lawyers etc . And this industrial infrastructure is such, that it needs big scale, commercial films (yes, including the so-called Hollywood inward investment products) to be made in this country to survive. 'The scale of economy'. I understand that during the dire years (which in part led to the birth of UKFC) that a huge number of skilled technicians and professionals in the film industry were made to become taxi drivers… And unfortunately (?) it is the very nature of the film as an industry/trade and economy as it exists at the moment that art, cultural, experimental and so on films are not independent but very dependent on the overall health and success of national film industry. As for the BFI or any other organisation taking on the essential remits of UKFC: guess what is really at stake is who specifically within the organisation will take on the role: who will have the mighty power to make decisions to dish out the limited subsidy money to so many desperate indie directors in the UK. Whoever that it is, it is inevitable that person’s individual taste, values, ideology and to some extent self interest will come into play. Let’s hope that it is someone who understands, as the famous saying goes, ‘film is also an industry’…not just an art form.

  2. “…the BFI is a charity, protected by royal charter – it can’t be dismantled.”… right premises – wrong conclusion. Charitable status and royal charter primarily carry responsibilities, not just privileges, and offer very little in terms of protection. If the BFI were unable to fulfil its responsibilities – and it’s impossible to imagine how it could fulfil them without continuing, or even increased, government funding – in due course both charitable status and royal charter must be forfeit. The Privy Council (guardian of the royal charter) might rattle its sabre, but it can’t force the government to provide the necessary funding, and the Charity Commission’s job is to regulate charities, not to protect them.

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